The Divine and the Prosaic, Personified in Found Objects

Walk into artist Luis Villanueva’s rococo-​inspired home in Woodland Hills, and he immediately becomes a Tasmanian Devil of activity, explaining the origins of each sconce, flourish and curlicue decorating staircase bannisters, framed paintings and pedestals. Because all of it is trash.

Luis Villanueva with one of his favorites, Our Lady of Zapópan (Photo by Tessie Borden)

And you won’t know that by looking around, so you have to hear the story.

“When you see it, you don’t think of it as trash,” Villanueva said in his native Spanish. “But it once was pure trash.”

Villanueva, who grew up turning found objects into beautiful things in the small town of Ixtlan, Mexico, since 1999 has been the artistic director of the annual Day of the Dead celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which regularly has an attendance of 35,000. This year, Villanueva is working with the Autry, which on Oct. 30 will host its own daylong celebration, ¡Vivan Los Muertos! (Long Live the Dead!), with the requisite altars, papel picado, and bread of the dead.

During the 1990s, Villanueva came up with the idea of applying his concept of art from recycled objects to different iterations of the Catholic Madonna. Naturally, he gravitated to the Virgin images popular in Mexico: Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico

Villanueva with his Spanish Dancer and Barfly Catrinas (Photo by Tessie Borden)

City, Our Lady of Zapópan in Guadalajara, Our Lady of Solitude (Soledad) in Oaxaca. Some of those Madonnas were part of an exhibition at the Southwest Museum in 2009. He also conducted a workshop for children, teaching them to make art out of recyclables.

At the moment, Villanueva is deconstructing one of his favorite Madonnas, the one from Zapópan, which graces his TV room.

“This is a golf ball I found thrown away,” he said pointing to the base. “This is a toilet paper roll. This is a box for mangoes. This is a lampshade. Now you begin to see it. This is a styrofoam meat container. This is a sardine can.”

And on he goes. But what is before your eyes doens’t look like sardine cans and toilet rolls. It is the kind of image you might find in an ancient church, down to the gilt trim and

Spanish Dancer Catrina flirts with the camera (Photo by Tessie Borden)

the delicate expression on the figure’s face. A little papier-​maché here, a little silver paint there, and Villanueva transforms whatever he finds in the dustbin into an object of veneration.

Or of ridicule. Perhaps arising from his work with the Day of the Dead, Villanueva’s most recent project goes in the other direction. Not divine inspiration here, but the purely mortal.

In Mexico, the image of Death as a well-​dressed but skeletal lady — sporting a real snake boa and an enormous hat and sometimes referred to as The Catrina — has been a popular figure since at least the end of the 19th Century, when José Guadalupe Posada, a printer and illustrator in Mexico City, began using animated figures of skeletons in lifelike situations to illustrate broadsides that commented on the growing urbanization and crime.

When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, the Catrina and its “friends” accompanied poems and satyrical songs lamenting the plight of the dispossessed. A Catrina is even one of the central figures in an important work by the muralist Diego Rivera,

Villanueva with his Rock Singer Catrina (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon on the Alameda,” which shows her surrounded, as if in a family photograph, by well-​known people of the time, including Rivera himself.

In an upstairs room where he stores the Catrinas, Villanueva describes the different versions of his Catrina.There’s a Spanish Dancer Catrina, a Barfly Catrina, a Brazilian Dancer Catrina. And a Rock Singer Catrina.

“She could be Britney Spears, she could be Madonna,” he said. “She’s wearing her fishnets and her tattoos like a rocker.… The expression is of a rock singer, although she’s dead.”

Villanueva insists his Catrinas are nothing like Posada’s or Rivera’s, their iconic importance notwithstanding.

“Everybody does Guadalupe Posada and Diego Rivera,” he said. “That’s logical because they invented the Catrinas. Not me.… I’m the first one to come out with them in workaday life.”

Villanueva is scheduled to exhibit three of his Catrinas Sept. 8–20 at the Los Angeles County Fair at the Fairplex in Pomona. And 10 of his images of the Virgin Mary will be part of the Mexican Bicentennial celebration at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown from Sept. 1 to the end of November.

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About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.